When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Hammer’s faltering Sword of Sherwood Forest was screened on Sunday, but two Robin Hood yarns in one week is certainly one too many, and Robin and Marian is without doubt the stronger choice.
The film started life as a concept handed to Richard Lester, one of many scrawled on a series of index cards. Flushed with success from The Three Musketeers and given his pick of projects, the director plumped eagerly for the idea of an ageing Robin Hood returning home after years soldiering in the Holy Land and France for King Richard. James Goldman, who penned The Lion in Winter, was duly commissioned to produce a script, rooted firmly in the same medieval England as his Henry II play. Imagining Robin as a bit of a grumpy old man, the casting of Sean Connery was an absolute masterstroke, whilst Audrey Hepburn was persuaded out of her lengthy sojourn raising her family to play Marian. The world of Robin and Marian reintroduced many characters from the legend, only now they were middle-aged and wiser, or at least more cynical. The ‘merrie men’ now comprised Nicol Williamson (Little John), Denholm Elliott (Will Scarlett) and Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck. Robert Shaw was called on to provide an altogether darker-minded and more serious Sheriff than audiences were used to.
The action opens in France. Robin and John are twenty years in ‘Good’ King Richard’s service, only he isn’t quite so virtuous. The Lionheart (Richard Harris) has abandoned the Crusade and now campaigns closer to home, ever seeking riches. He’s dispatched our heroes to a castle that they’re to take, after hearing it contains a gold statue. It turns out there’s just a one-eyed old man left to protect the women and children. Robin’s ready to leave it, but the king insists on the attack, which compels the old man to throw an arrow into his neck. The wound’s mortal. Richard, dying, relieves Robin and forgives him for his disobedience. Thoroughly disillusioned, the former Hood and John head for Sherwood Forest (actually Pamplona) to find things changed yet strangely the same. Will and Tuck continue to live in the trees, though they’re the only ones left from the original gang. The Sheriff lurks inside Nottingham Castle as though waiting for the moment of Robin’s return. And Marian has been the abbess of a nearby priory for 18 years.
Seemingly within minutes of his return, Robin’s turned back the clock. Rescuing Marian from the clutches of the Sheriff, who is supposed to arrest her on religious grounds, they’re in their old forest hideout once more and planning further antics. The Sheriff, along with King John’s man, Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh), plots his downfall, delivering the chilling lines ‘I know him. He’s a little bit in love with death. He flirts. He teases. I can wait.’ In the meantime, Robin and Marian fall in love all over again. It becomes clear that she was always his, the departure he made to follow King Richard all those years ago prompting her to attempt suicide before giving herself to God.
The depiction of Robin is entirely pleasing. After watching Connery go through the motions recently in his Bond films, it’s a real treat to see him putting his all into a character in which he truly appeared to believe. Best of all, Connery makes no attempt to mask Robin’s advancing years. Balding and grey, every effort he makes comes with a grunt or a grimace. In one scene, he and John are cornered by the Sheriff and compelled to climb a keep wall in order to escape, and there’s a lovely yet horrible moment when both outlaws realise a physical feat they may once have completed with ease is now sapping their energy. Shaw’s playing of the Sheriff gives him an opportunity to reprise the duel he once partook with Connery in From Russia with Love. Thirteen years on and Shaw’s cut form from the earlier film has given way to middle-aged spread and turned their swordfight into a tussle between exhausted men who can give no quarter. Despite the actor’s charisma and apparent affection over coming across Robin once again, there’s a terrible undercurrent of loathing about his Sheriff. It seems he’s stayed alive for the chance to best Robin, just once. In the end, nothing else matters to him. The almost casual way Robin clearly overcame him in the past (we’re supposed to imagine a more mythic, lyrical era, perhaps the Hood as depicted in the Errol Flynn starring The Adventures of Robin Hood) obviously rankles, leaving unfinished business.
But maybe better than both – and that’s saying something – is Audrey Hepburn. I’ve read elsewhere that she delivers a subdued performance, but for me it’s all about the eyes, the efforts she makes to dismiss the ageing but no wiser Robin who clearly still fancies himself as he once was, yet the longing in those enormous eyes betrays her true feelings. It’s a fantastically written role and delivered with real heart. She recalls with the feeling of someone haunted by memories their old dwelling in the roots of a tree, the way his body was in the old days and the many battle scars that have destroyed his perfection. It’s the role of someone who wholly welcomed playing a mature woman, one with an almost tangible passion.
Lester reins in his usual comic shtick. Though there are funny moments in the film, it’s an altogether tightly told affair, stuffed with fine performances from a starry cast in a dirty Middle Ages England. The attention to detail is just wonderful. At one point, the outlaws make their way to Nottingham and pass a man working the field who has just one arm. Is he supposed to be a war veteran or has he at some point incurred the wrath of the authorities? In a speech that doubles as his mission statement, Robin tells Sir Ranulf that he’ll always defend England from nobles like him who do what they want without consequence, which suggests the one-armed man was punished with mutilation, perhaps for thieving in desperate times. Who knows? It’s one tiny moment within a film set in a dangerous realm where people fear God but have more cause to be terrified of the Sheriff, a land, in other words, that has missed its Robin Hood.
Robin and Marian: ****